Understanding Unhealthy Influence

Escaping Utopia (Routledge, 2017), which I co-authored, tells the stories of 65 people from 39 different cults in more than a dozen countries.

Cover of Escaping Utopia bookMy co-author, sociologist Janja Lalich, PhD, is an internationally renowned expert on cults, indoctrination, extremist groups, and terrorist groups, and she is a cult survivor. So am I.

Janja knows cults from the inside out, and she shows that a cult is simply a social group using everyday social behaviors that get out of hand. Cults can be any size, and they can be focused on all kinds of beliefs or ideas, such as saving the world.

Janja developed a brilliant way to explain cults with her bounded choice model. In this model, she shows that cult members aren’t out of their minds; they’re usually idealists who want to change the world. Cults and cult leaders take advantage of their members’ idealistic dedication, but they turn all of it toward the cult’s own needs.

Every successful social group finds ways to engage people and energize them, but cults use four specific dimensions to bring people in and trap them.

The Four Dimensions That All Cults Share

I’ve focused on each of Janja’s dimensions to help you identify whether they’re active in your relationships, or in any group you belong to — and whether these dimensions are being used in healthy or unhealthy ways.

  1. A charismatic authority figure
  2. A transcendent belief system
  3. Systems of control
  4. Systems of influence

In my previous posts, I focused on the first 3 dimensions of bounded choice. In this final post, we’ll look at systems of influence.

What Are Systems of Influence?

Successful groups help their members learn how to create a group identity that supports individuals – who can in turn strengthen the group. Through social and emotional encouragement and guidance, groups can teach us how to belong, how to share beliefs, and how to get into sync with other group members.

In healthy groups, these systems of influence support individuality and freedom while helping group members feel as if they belong. For example, a respectful soccer coach helps her team do their best and supports an atmosphere of respect and excellence that permeates throughout the team. Soon, team members will support each other and strive toward personal excellence as a way to demonstrate their dedication to the coach, to the team as a whole, and to each other.

Healthy and successful groups develop an internal identity that is respectful of each individual’s strengths and challenges.These groups are open to change and growth, and they’re mindful of the well-being of the group as a whole.

In contrast, abusive and high-demand groups strip away individuality, are rigid and perfectionist, and place the needs of the group leader (and/or the transcendent belief system) above all other things.

These unhealthy groups use constant peer pressure to enforce intense and self-erasing commitment until unquestioning obedience to the group’s beliefs, rules, and expectations becomes a daily or even hourly task.

An essential aspect of unhealthy influence is that the leader and all members of the group can criticize or report those who stray from the perfect path – and in this toxic environment of self-sacrifice and constant criticism, people can become sealed into what Janja calls a “bounded reality,” from which it is extremely difficult to escape.

On one hand, people sealed into these systems of influence are striving toward perfection in a group of absolutely dedicated people who are their friends, family, and community – so much so that leaving would feel like losing everyone and everything they care about.

On the other hand, the group’s constant manipulation and perfectionist expectations keep members so hyper-focused on performance – and so unsure of themselves – that they don’t have the time, space, or energy they need to even think about leaving.

The group is everything and everyone they know. Their leader is like a god (or may actually claim to be the reincarnation of God). Their group’s perfect path is the only answer.

Therefore, their only real choice is a bounded choice: to obey fully, eliminate all of their doubts and their needs, and commit themselves completely – or risk losing everything.

The Unique Features of Cultic Systems of Influence

Our social relationships help make us who we are, and finding the right balance between external influence and our own internal moral structure is what individuation is about. But for cult members, individuation isn’t an option, because cultic systems of influence are built to strip away each member’s internal moral structure and replace it with the group’s ideals, beliefs, rules, and rigid expectations.

In many instances, systems of influence (such as public health campaigns) can have positive effects on us. But in cults, these systems aren’t focused on our well-being; instead, they’re focused entirely on the needs of the cult and its leader – and on turning idealistic people into fully committed and obedient cult members. In exchange for a sense of meaning, purpose, and deep belonging, each cult member is required to give up her sense of self, her individuality, and her identity

In most cults, members are expected not only to bond with each other and strive heroically toward perfection, but they are also supposed to criticize and report on anyone (including themselves) who veers from the cult’s perfect path. Cultic systems of influence enforce and require constant self-criticism, peer monitoring and surveillance, and reporting any wrongdoing to leadership. These requirements help turn members into agents of the cult and its leaders.

How Followers Learn to Entrap Themselves

When powerful systems of influence are active, people may lose their sense of self, their critical thinking, and their autonomy – and when they do, they can be converted into obedient followers.

One of the strange side effects of this process is that converts may begin to believe that they have free will, and that they have intentionally chosen to de-self and obey. They become true believers and lose any real awareness of the influence methods that reshaped and resocialized them – and they come to believe that they willingly accepted this personal transformation to be one of the chosen few.

This seems bizarre, but it’s a crucial feature of toxic systems of influence and persuasion. And it’s possibly the most difficult feature for someone who hasn’t experienced it to fully understand.

Sociologist Benjamin Zablocki focuses on the social-psychological pressures that lead to this willing self-delusion in his work on hyper-credulity and hyper-compliance in cultic groups.[i]

Zablocki explains that cult members learn to erase their critical judgment and wholly accept the beliefs, ideas, and doctrines of the group; members enter into a state of hyper-credulity. Simultaneously, they become strongly attached to and emotionally dependent on the leader and other group members, and cannot bear to be separated from them.

This brings about a combined external and internal state in which the idea of leaving the group feels unbearable, and the cult member enters into a state of hyper-compliance. The group becomes everything, and so it becomes rational to comply with whatever the leader or group demands. If these demands are harsh or abusive, the hyper-credulity aspect will arise to erase critical thinking and justify whatever rationalizations or excuses the leader offers, however farfetched they may seem to us on the outside.

How Cognitive Dissonance Supports Damaging and Wrong Ideas

Social psychological research has consistently found that once a person makes a commitment, especially if he takes a strong position in front of others, it is likely that he will cling to that position. This consistency is more likely to lead to hyper-compliance when people spend money, when their family and friends go along with them, or when they have already invested their time and energy.

Additionally, social psychological research has shown that a similar form of self-deception occurs in situations of internal conflict.[ii]

When people are confronted by the possibility that their cherished thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors are wrong, they may be overtaken by a painful internal state known as cognitive dissonance. The conflict between their ideas or behaviors and stark reality can evoke many difficult feelings, such as stress, anxiety, anger, nausea, shame, fear, or all of these.[iii]

In response to this distressing conflict, people tend to alter and distort their perception of reality in order to relieve their cognitive dissonance – and cultic systems of influence help members achieve this relief. When a person finds a group that becomes a vital source of hope, they will begin to think in ways that cause the least amount of turmoil – and they will often choose the group over their own doubts.

Having chosen, their sense of consistency will intensify their commitment to the group.

Many people who have been subjected to harsh systems of influence may deny what was done to them. Some become angry at the idea that they were changed or directed by manipulation, persuasion, or influence tactics.

Some may even develop cognitive dissonance about the knowledge that they willingly supported beliefs, relationships, and obedience to a leader that they now find repugnant. It is very threatening to think that you might have been controlled or changed by another person or group of people; nevertheless, it happens every day.

Luckily, so does the resistance that can help people escape these systems.

Evaluating the Systems of Influence in Your Own Life

Influence and persuasion are present in all social relationships, so it’s important to explore the systems of influence in your life and identify any current problems or any past situations in which you were influenced negatively. Understanding and identifying these situations is the first step toward overcoming their effects. 

The following checklists can help you identify systems of influence that are worthwhile and appropriate – and they will also help you identify systems that are controlling, abusive, or likely to undermine your individuality.

As you look through these lists, remember that systems of influence are used by individuals, groups, and the media, and that influence is a part of most forms of communication. Influence and persuasion are regular features of everyday life. They can be healthy or toxic, but they’re nearly always present.

You can use this checklist to gauge the health of the systems of influence in your relationships, in any groups you belong to, in the media, in politics, or in any other place where people attempt to create behavioral change, communal agreements, or group identity. See if any of the following statements are true.

  • There is constant pressure for people to change and conform.
  • The push for change comes from above; the needs or ideas of group members are not important.
  • There are frequent group dedication and commitment ceremonies and activities; oneness is a central goal.
  • The system of influence is built into the powerful sense of community; this deep closeness is both supportive to members and also a way for the group to pry into and control members’ private lives.
  • Loyalty to family or friends is discouraged; all loyalty must be focused on the group and the leader.
  • Gossip, informal communication, and off-topic conversations may be forbidden.
  • Members have no privacy; their actions, behaviors, emotions, and even thoughts are monitored.
  • Members soon internalize the pressure to conform, and will obediently monitor and report their own behavior.
  • Members must report on themselves and also each other – as a result, a culture of confession will arise.
  • Confessions are public; and punishment and humiliation are public as well.
  • The leader’s behavior is off limits; no one can report on the transgressions of the leader, for he or she is exalted and can do no wrong.
  • Special people around the leader or the leadership group are also protected from any criticism; often there are no consequences for their behavior or actions.
  • Members may be given or asked to choose new names or nicknames, and will be encouraged to let go of previous interests, relationships, loyalties, and goals.
  • The group may develop its own special language that outsiders cannot understand.
  • Any successes or hard work performed by individuals will be attributed to the group or leader, while any difficulty or failure will be blamed on individuals.
  • People in the outside world are treated as non-people: unenlightened, deluded, or evil – and they only have value if they can be converted.
  • The group or the leader may reinterpret events to verify the group’s beliefs, fears, or visions of the future; everything will be fitted into their all-encompassing and transcendent belief system.

If you checked yes to one or more of these statements, you may be dealing with a toxic system of influence. However, this does not mean that the person or group that uses the system is dangerous, and it does not mean that you’re involved in a cult.

This troubling system of influence would have to be combined with the other three aspects of bounded choice (a transcendent belief system, a charismatic and narcissistic leader, and a toxic system of control) before the group or relationship could be considered cultic.

However, if this system of influence disturbs you (even if the other aspects of bounded choice aren’t present), you may be able to suggest changes and explore whether the people inside the system will address the problems of undue influence and persuasion.

You can also share the features of healthy influence and persuasion below to help the person or group understand the specific ways in which their systems of influence have become unhealthy. If they can’t or won’t change, you can use these features below to find a new relationship or group that uses systems of influence that are respectful, compassionate, and healthy.

Signs of Healthy Systems of Influence

Healthy systems of influence focus on creating group unity that is supportive for the group and for the individuals within it. Healthy influence creates a sense of belonging, dedication, friendliness, and teamwork; and it can help people reach goals that they couldn’t achieve on their own.

  • The system helps people feel welcome and important to the group, exactly as they are.
  • The system encourages healthy community, teamwork, and camaraderie, as well as open discussion and debate about group projects, goals, and decisions.
  • Members are role models for each other, but internal competition is a choice rather than a requirement.
  • Individual hard work and excellence are celebrated, and individuals are recognized for their work.
  • The group encourages self-awareness and personal responsibility, but does not require public self-exposure.
  • The system supports privacy, self-respect, independence, and kindness.
  • Communication is direct and open, and secret-keeping is discouraged
  • Members are not required to spy on or report others.
  • Members have the right to challenge the ways that group unity is achieved.
  • Striving for excellence may be a group value, but the demands are not harsh, and people are not penalized for failure.
  • Dedication may be a group value, but the group also makes room for casual members.
  • The system incorporates fairness, concern for individuals, and acceptance of outsiders.
  • The group provides a healthy sense of belonging and realistic levels of commitment.
  • Leaders and special insiders are not above the rules, and they can be challenged if they disrupt or ignore group norms.
  • The system helps members develop a unified group identity that does not erase their own identities.

When a system of influence is healthy, it supports group identity and individual identity equally. When a system is toxic, it demands change, obedience, and a stripping away of individual identity.

With the help of the bounded choice model, we can see that toxic systems of influence exploit close community ties to control and change members into obedient followers. Many cult members feel a deep sense of belonging and comradeship, certainly; but that may come at a terrible price – because even small differences or minor mistakes invite shaming, punishment, shunning, and perhaps even excommunication.

The close relationships people build inside cultic groups are always at risk, because their relationships belong to the cult and can be ended at any time. Close community ties, teamwork, and deep dedication are wonderful things; but when they’re part of a toxic system of influence, they can turn people into mindless cogs in the group’s machine.

Breaking free from toxic systems of influence can be very difficult because these systems hook into our powerful need to belong. However, people can and do break free every day – and we can all learn how to identify and avoid these unhealthy and harmful systems. We can also learn how to recognize and contribute to healthy and worthwhile systems of influence and persuasion.

Systems of influence can be the subtlest of the four aspects of bounded choice; yet they also tend to exert the most powerful hold on members – even more so than the more obvious aspects of the charismatic leader, the transcendent belief system, or the systems of control. The choice to stay in a system like this – and the choice to self-monitor and report on yourself, your friends, and your family – is truly a bounded choice.

In a toxic system of influence, you have no other option than to silence your thoughts, your emotions, and your needs – and obey. Thankfully, we all have the ability to listen to ourselves, smash our chains, and break free.

Shedding Toxic Influence

In my group, I didn’t stay around long enough to be fully engaged in its system of influence. I entered at the age of 10, and I was kicked out when  was 17. The night I was kicked out, the senior women were using their system of influence to report on my transgressions (I regularly chatted with the bag boy at the Von’s supermarket where we shopped, oh no!).

As our group’s system of influence intensified, talking to outsiders was forbidden. I thought it was a ludicrous rule, and I ignored it.

As I looked around the room, sure of myself and my standing within the group, I was horrified to see people turning away from me, or agreeing with the senior women’s concerns.

I had been the beloved baby in the group, and I was a kind of step-child of the leader. I had been able to avoid most of the systems of control and influence because I had special standing, but our leader was out of the country trying to raise funds to keep our businesses afloat, and my special protections were gone.

The adored, spoiled child became the black sheep that night, and the sheep had to be sacrificed. I see that now. Their group identity was far more important than one young girl could ever be, and they needed me gone so that their group identity could become stronger. It was a survival tactic.

I understand.

And I have vowed since that day to never belong to, nor to create a group that defined itself by whom it excluded.

May we all learn to create community by celebrating individuals as much as we celebrate our relationships and our groups.

May we all keep a watchful eye on our sense of being insiders so that we don’t mistakenly create outsiders.

May we all build and conscientiously monitor our relationships, our social systems, and our groups to make sure that they are ethical, empathic, supportive, and healthy.

May our sense of specialness be inclusive and welcoming instead of closed and excluding.

May we all become free of unhealthy influence, together.

[i] Benjamin D. Zablocki, “Hyper-Compliance in Charismatic Groups,” in David D. Franks and Thomas S. Smith, eds., Mind, Brain and Society: Toward a Neurosociology of Emotion (Stamford, CT: JAI Press, 1999), 287-310.

[ii] Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1964).

[iii] See Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (New York: Mariner Books, 2015).

4 Responses

  1. David
    | Reply

    I’m really enjoying your book, but I’m curious about establishing or shaping a community which limits these systems of influence. It seems to me that, at some point, there may be necessary exclusion of people who wish to perpetrate these systems of influence in particular ways–shaming people for raising questions, for disagreeing, etc. The traumatized, cult-influenced part of me says excluding them is wrong, but the rational, healing part of me says sometimes those kinds of exclusions are necessary. Allowing unsafe behaviour is not a healthy way forward, but am I heading towards an exclusionary system by forbidding and excluding unsafe behaviour? I’m struggling to find a framework for thinking about this.

    How would you approach this?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Good questions, David, and it’s why I included the signs of healthy groups in each chapter.

      Groups need norms, and abuse is non-negotiable. But if you’ve been damaged by these high-control groups, it may be hard to think outside that rigid paradigm.

      I can’t think of any books about healthy group formation right now (look at books about democratic, flat, and egalitarian groups), but there is one on how to create healthy gatherings by Priya Parker. She talks about inclusion and exclusion-for-the-sake-of-the-group, and it’s very helpful.

      It’s The Art of Gathering, and you can find it here: https://bookshop.org/books/the-art-of-gathering-how-we-meet-and-why-it-matters/9781594634932

      I hope this helps!

  2. Sofia
    | Reply

    Dear Karla

    The top of your checklist is…It makes me feel very sad.

    There is constant pressure for people to change and conform.
    The push for change comes from above; the needs or ideas of group members are not important.
    There are frequent group dedication and commitment ceremonies and activities; oneness is a central goal.
    The system of influence is built into the powerful sense of community; this deep closeness is both supportive to members and also a way for the group to pry into and control members’ private lives.
    Loyalty to family or friends is discouraged; all loyalty must be focused on the group and the leader.

    If these are a signs point out unhealthy systems of influence…
    Than this means that many people earn their living in working taking part in this type of relationships.
    In many companies their is no work-private life balance. Work comes first…family second.
    If you can’t settle for that…they kick you out… or you become the scapegoat to show the rest of the group what could happen to them…if…

    The leader’s behavior is off limits; no one can report on the transgressions of the leader, for he or she is exalted and can do no wrong.
    Special people around the leader or the leadership group are also protected from any criticism; often there are no consequences for their behavior or actions.

    Even in countries where they have unions of workers, laws on employment, some kind of so called “whistleblower” hotline….in reality it hardly has rarely any effect on a range of companies and their culture an ethics. And even unions of workers sometimes have the same ways to interact with their memebers.

    So people are paid to take part in a cult and pay membership contributions to take part in some other cult at the same time….

    Thank you for clear vision. At least now I know why I left jobs…it didn’t feel sane.


    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Ugh, Sofia, I’m sorry you had to deal with this kind of unhealthy group dynamic.

      Yes, businesses can become cultic if people don’t know what they’re doing. Any relationship or group can become cultic, which is a part of what Janja’s genius model explains.

      She shows so clearly that cults are abusive relationships, sometimes between 2 people, but also between large groups of people.

      One of my contributions to the book was to create a list of what a healthy group looks like in each of Janja’s 4 dimensions. I wanted people to be able to identify healthy groups and relationships and steer clear of damaging groups and relationships.

      I’m glad you got away!

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